Salmora in Majuli river island in Assam is not any ordinary village. Located on the southeastern corner of the island, surrounded by the mighty Brahmaputra on three sides, this village is remarkable in many ways. One of the largest Kumar (potter) villages in Assam, Salmora’s pottery is characterized by two unique features: it is entirely handcrafted, without any use of potter’s wheel; second, and this might surprise many, the pottery economy at Salmora is largely a barter economy.
Every year, the Kumar men navigate the Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries to sell their pottery in bazars, towns, and villages across the state, mostly in exchange for foodgrains (rice in particular), but also for clothes and some cash. Besides pottery, the Salmora Kumars are also known for their craftsmanship of boatmaking, folklores of which abound the island.
Politically, too, the Salmora landscape has been active, as evidenced by the boycott of the 2014 general election by this village at a time when the so-called “Modi wave” swept through the nation. This was done as a mark of protest against the state’s failure to protect the area from the crises of flooding and riverbank erosion. More recently, however, Salmora has done something even more remarkable: this time around interspecies love.
As is well-known, annual flooding and a constant process of riverbank erosion have been part of the Brahmaputra valley landscape. Besides causing enormous damages to human lives and livelihoods, these processes have also resulted in habitat loss for wild animals, the majestic elephants being one of the victims.
Due to the loss of permanent home, some herds of elephants have been on the move for years in and around the Brahmaputra valley. As some residents of Salmora told me, one such herd has been visiting the village every other flood season since the catastrophic flood of 2000. There have been occasional instances of accidental human-elephant conflict leading to 2-3 deaths in the past, but for the most part, these visits have been uneventful.
This monsoon, the elephants have visited Salmora again, but this time around, they have decided to stay near the village a little longer. The community welcomed their initial stroll around the village with rice and bananas. The herd then moved to a nearby chapori (a riverine island or sandbar) where they have been camping for the past 2-3 weeks.
“Every night, the elephants cry so loud that it’s heart-wrenching,” said a villager from Salmora. “There are about 60-70 elephants in the herd, with a sizable population of calves. Since we know that this particular chapori isn’t resourceful enough to sustain such a large herd for weeks, we realized that they must be crying for food, especially for their babies. So, we decided to look after them by supplying them with some food,” he continued.
It is important to note that Salmora is one of the worst-hit villages in Majuli by flooding and riverbank erosion, so much so that almost every household in the village has gone through repeated relocations while many have out-migrated over the years. In fact, as I write this piece, a large number of families in the village have their homes submerged and are living in makeshift tents on the embankment. Yet, the decision to provide food to the elephant herd was unanimous in the village.
So, the youth went around the village, procuring bananas (both the fruit and the plant), paddy, bamboo shoot, jackfruit, etc., which they planned to take to the chapori for the elephants. They also raised funds within the village to purchase salt, an important component of the elephant’s diet, as well as rent a ferry so they could take the food to the chapori. The next morning, they took a 15-minute ferry ride to the chapori and delivered the food to the elephants.
They repeated it the following day as well. The elephants reciprocated, too, by going away a little bit while the ferry approached so the people felt safe to get off it and leave the foodstuff in some dry spots. As soon as the ferry left, the herd came towards the food and accepted it cheerfully, which the men on the ferry observed from a distance.
The Salmora community’s gesture inspired others as well, as two other neighboring villages, namely Dakhinpat Kumar Gaon and Dakhinpat Kaivarta Gaon, followed suit the next day. These two villages were also as devastated by floods and erosion as Salmora.
What explains this gesture by the riverside communities, Salmora in particular, towards the herd of wild elephants? The trigger may be the incessant cries at night presumably by the mother elephants, as some Salmora residents mentioned to me. But I cannot help thinking that there is more to it.
I would venture to argue that behind such extraordinary empathy for the elephants lies the Salmora community’s own experience of repeated displacement and relocation. Perhaps the people of Salmora know all too well what it means to be homeless, to be on the move, to be stranded in unknown geographies separated from one’s own kin. Hence, such a gesture towards the elephants.
As mentioned earlier, it is also important to take into account that the Kumars of Salmora spend several months a year on boats, navigating the Brahmaputra waterscapes, to sell their pottery. Any conversation with a Kumar man in Salmora about those voyages is replete with adventure tales, including close encounters with wild animals.
Could it be that, through these experiences, the Kumars of Salmora have, over time, developed a special bond with and sensitivity towards the river and all lives in it, thus learning to co-exist with the non-human beings, such as this herd of elephants? Can we call it a “riverine interspecies cosmology” of a sort?
Or could it be that, through this small gesture of love and empathy, the disaster-ravaged riverside communities in Majuli are conveying a message to the world on how to care for others in times of crisis, how not to abandon those in need of help, even if that means some self-sacrifice?
Mitul Baruah is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University.